A Tennessee teacher has been added to the state's most wanted list as authorities continue to search for him and a missing 15-year-old girl he's accused of kidnapping.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has suggested Tad Cummins "may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her," a statewide AMBER alert update from the TBI said. The agency added Cummins to the state's top 10 most wanted list on Friday.
District Attorney General Brent Cooper said Cummins will now be charged with the aggravated kidnapping of Elizabeth Thomas, in addition to charges he faces for an interaction that took place with Thomas at Culleoka Unit School, where he taught and she was a student. Anyone who provides information leading to Cummins' arrest will be eligible for a $1,000 reward.
Cummins was suspended by the school when the Maury County Sheriff's Department began investigating him for sexual contact with a minor and formally dismissed him on Tuesday over the incident.
Cooper was joined at the sheriff's department by Cummins' wife, Jill Cummins, who pleaded with her husband to turn himself in.
"Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are. We can help you get through this," she said. "I had no idea my husband was involved in any of this."
NEW PICTURES: Various shots of Ted Cummins in the past few weeks, including the vehicle he's believed to be driving. TN TAG: 976-ZPT. pic.twitter.com/52vpTn2IWf— Josh DeVine (@TBIJoshDeVine) March 17, 2017
If Cummins is convicted of aggravated kidnapping, a charge added nearly five days since he and Thomas disappeared, he could face anywhere from eight to 21 years in prison. But the district attorney emphasized that if Cummins releases Thomas or gives officers information leading to the teen's safe return, the punishment could be less severe.
"I urge Mr. Cummins to pick up the phone," Cooper said.
He said Thomas has led a "difficult life" and that Cummins may have used his greater age and experience to manipulate the teen. He declined to elaborate at Friday's press conference.
Since issuing the AMBER Alert on Tuesday, the TBI has received too few leads, and none have produced any credible sightings of Cummings or Thomas. The "shockingly low number of tips" has led the TBI to conclude the pair are likely out of view of the general public or have traveled outside of the southeast, spokesman Josh DeVine said.
"We believe this girl is in imminent danger," DeVine said. "This is a dire situation for this young girl."
He called the two "a needle in a haystack," and pleaded with the nation to take notice.
Going forward, he said detectives are working to learn the pair's movements in the weeks leading up to their disappearance, noting that they may now have different hairstyles. The TBI would like to hear from anyone who may have had an interaction with either individual prior to their disappearance.
Thomas was last seen when she was dropped off at a Shoney's restaurant in Columbia between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. on Monday.
Surveillance video appears to show Cummins at a nearby gas station getting fuel. Information places Thomas in the vicinity of Decatur, Ala., just after 3 p.m. Monday, according to the TBI.
The teenage girl is described as being white with blond hair and hazel eyes, and is 5 foot 5 inches and 120 pounds. Cummins is a 6-foot white male with brown hair and brown eyes and weighs 200 pounds. He drives a silver Nissan Rogue with Tennessee license plate of 976ZPT.
The TBI is urging the public to remain vigilant and contact the TBI with any information at 1-800-TBI-FIND. If you spot Cummins vehicle with a Tennessee license plate 976-ZPT, call 911.
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